- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Can a work of art be truly great if it has a terrible ending?

There are acknowledged cultural masterpieces — “Anna Karenina,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and the final season of “Game of Thrones” — that end on a low note, where the genius of the creator appears to fritter away in a frantic inability to know how or when to stop.

In chess, too, we search out games that feature brilliant conclusions, with fiery tactics or subtle positional concepts that provide a satisfying finale. So what if the losing player made a hideous blunder 20 moves earlier that set the stage for the winning fireworks show? That doesn’t diminish the luster of a brilliant final combination by a Morphy or a Tal.

Far more difficult to judge are those stirring struggles marred by a final losing blunder. All the good work — by the winner and the loser — are colored by that last mistake, even if the rest of the game provided a brilliant clash of ideas and maneuvering of the highest order. Such games tend to be overlooked in the anthologies.

Take, for instance, the third game of the first world title match between Austrian champion Wilhelm Steinitz and Prussian challenger Emanuel Lasker in 1894. Outplayed in the early stages of his own Ruy Lopez Steinitz Defense, Steinitz as Black goes in for a kamikaze line that nearly pays off against one of the game’s greatest defenders: 22. Be3 Qb5!?! (c5 23. 0-0 Kb8 24. bxc5 Qc6 25. Rfd1, with a healthy edge for White; Black throws material considerations to the wind in search of counterplay) 23. Rxa7 b6 24. Ra8+ Kb7 25. Rxf8 Rxf8 26. Nxf8 Qd3!, whipping up a menacing attack on the White king out of thin air.

Even the imperturbable Lasker is thrown by the idea, as it turns out White can take the rook and avoid the perpetual with 27. Nxd7 Qb1+ 28. Kd2! Qxb2+ 29. Kd1 Qb3+ 30. Ke2 Qc4+ 31. Kf2 Qa2+ 32. Kf1 Qc4+ 33. Ke1 Qxc3+ 34. Bd2 Qa1+ 35. Ke2, and White emerges a piece up.

After the game’s 27. Rf1?! Qc2 28. Bd2, Steinitz later claimed good drawing chances with 28…Nc4!; e.g. 29. Qf4 Rd8 30. Ne6 Ra8 31. Ke2 Ra2, and the attack rages on.

Even a queen trade doesn’t get White out of the woods after 42. Ne8 Nb4! (threatening a perpetual check) 43. Rg3! Ra3+ 44. Kb1 Rb3+ 45. Kc1 Nd3+ 46. Rxd3!? cxd3 47. Nxf6 Rxb5, and Black has somehow managed to even the material balance with a rook and pawn for two minor pieces.

But having worked so hard, Black unfortunately spoils things at the end on 51. Bxc3 Rg5?? (a denouement unworthy of what went before; with 51…Kd7!, White still has to work for the win) 52. f7, and Black had to resign facing 52…Rf1+ 53. Kb2 Rf1 54. Ne6 Rxf7 55. Nd8+, winning.

Despite decisively losing two title matches to the much younger Lasker in 1894 and 1896, Steinitz occasionally flashed the brilliant form that kept him atop the chess world for nearly three decades.

In Game 14 of the 1894 match, he pounced on his rival’s faulty play in a QGD Slav. After 18. Rad1 g4? 19. Qe3 Bh5 (see diagram; Black planned now to play 19…Qg5, only to see White could replay 20. Nxg4!) 20. Nxc6! Bxh2+ 21. Kxh2 g3+ 22. Qxg3 Qxg3+ 23. fxg3 Bxd1 24. Bxd1 bxc6 25. Rxe6, and the threat of 26. d5 costs Lasker another pawn.

Black gets two pawns for the exchange, but the trio of passed White pawns quickly proves too much for Lasker’s rooks. In the final position, 46…Ke6 (to meet the threat of 47. d7) is met by 47. Bd6+.

Lasker-Steinitz, World Championship Match, Game 3, New York, March 1894

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 d6 4. d4 Bd7 5. Nc3 Nge7 6. Bc4 exd4 7. Nxd4 Nxd4 8. Qxd4 Nc6 9. Qe3 Ne5 10. Bb3 Be6 11. f4 Nc4 12. Qg3 Nb6 13. Be3 c6 14. f5 Bxb3 15. axb3 Nd7 16. Bf4 Qc7 17. b4 f6 18. Ne2 Ne5 19. Nd4 Qb6 20. c3 O-O-O 21. Ne6 Rd7 22. Be3 Qb5 23. Rxa7 b6 24. Ra8+ Kb7 25. Rxf8 Rxf8 26. Nxf8 Qd3 27. Rf1 Qc2 28. Bd2 Re7 29. Ne6 Qxe4+ 30. Qe3 Qxg2 31. b3 Re8 32. Qe2 Qh3 33. Kd1 Ra8 34. Rf2 Ra2 35. b5 c5 36. Nxg7 d5 37. Kc1 Qd3 38. Qxd3 Nxd3+ 39. Kb1 Rb2+ 40. Ka1 Rxb3 41. Rf3 c4 42. Ne8 Nb4 43. Rg3 Ra3+ 44. Kb1 Rb3+ 45. Kc1 Nd3+ 46. Rxd3 cxd3 47. Nxf6 Rxb5 48. Ne8 Kc6 49. f6 d4 50. Ng7 dxc3 51. Bxc3 Rg5 52. f7 Black resigns.

Steinitz-Lasker, World Championship Match, Game 14, Montreal, May 1894

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c6 4. e3 Nf6 5. Nf3 Bd6 6. Bd3 Nbd7 7. O-O O-O 8. e4 dxe4 9. Nxe4 Nxe4 10. Bxe4 h6 11. Bc2 f5 12. Re1 Nf6 13. Bd2 Bd7 14. Bc3 Qc7 15. Ne5 Be8 16. Qd3 g5 17. Qh3 Qg7 18. Rad1 g4 19. Qe3 Bh5 20. Nxc6 Bxh2+ 21. Kxh2 g3+ 22. Qxg3 Qxg3+ 23. fxg3 Bxd1 24. Bxd1 bxc6 25. Rxe6 Ne4 26. Rxc6 Nxc3 27. bxc3 Kg7 28. Ra6 Rf7 29. c5 Rd8 30. Kg1 Re7 31. Kf2 Rb8 32. Bb3 Rbe8 33. Bc4 Rb8 34. Bd3 h5 35. Kf3 Rb2 36. Bxf5 Rf7 37. Ke4 Re2+ 38. Kd3 Rxg2 39. Rg6+ Kf8 40. Be4 Rg1 41. d5 Rg7 42. Rxg7 Kxg7 43. c6 Kf6 44. c7 Rxg3+ 45. Kd4 Rg8 46. d6 Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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